When a devastating fire gutted Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on September 1, 1995, much of the school lay in ruin. Built in 1954, the oldest high school in Virginia Beach lost 27 classrooms, the cafeteria, administrative offices, and the newly remodeled library media center (LMC). A combination of fire, smoke, and water destroyed the entire library collection.
Rebuilding the collection presented the library staff with unique opportunities as well as overwhelming challenges. While most school libraries are slowly making the transition from a traditional setting to an increasingly technologically advanced media center, the Princess Anne library was thrust into the 21st century overnight.
Although deciding to replace outdated or unused equipment and books (no more 16mm film projectors and 1940 copyrighted books!) wasn’t difficult, other considerations, such as whether to invest in the enormous effort of rebuilding the vertical files, were not so simple.
The rationale for vertical files Before the fire, more than 300 vertical, or information, files filled four large file cabinets. National, state, and local issues were covered, arranged alphabetically by subject. If students needed information on freedom of speech, they could find it in the “Censorship” file. Charter schools? Check the “Education” file. PETA issues? See “Animal Rights.” Embassy bombings? Try the “Terrorism” file. Even body piercing (yes, a student asked) – look in “Fads.”
With the amount of new technology currently available for research, why keep the vertical files? With hundreds of databases from which to choose, accessibility to the Internet, and newspapers and magazine indexes on CD-ROM, is it worth the time to maintain these files?
Even with multiple electronic sources, the vertical files are an indispensable reference tool for the following reasons:
Student accessibility. Students who are assigned to do research on current issues may be limited by the number and availability of computers. Although other sources may be available, our library has only six computers with Internet access, so most of the students in a class of 30 would have to wait for computer access if we did away with the vertical files. They provide an opportunity for many students to do research simultaneously.
Supplement to the school curricula. The library media specialist can save valuable time by keeping files on topics that teachers assign year after year. Our science curriculum, for example, includes a unit on genetic diseases, so a corresponding vertical file was created, full of current research that supplements our print sources. Also, as new textbooks are regularly adopted by schools, it isn’t possible for the library collection to keep pace with the most current curriculum needs. The vertical files are a valuable supplement until funds become available to update the book collection to meet new and constantly changing curriculum requirements.
Local topics. Students researching local and regional issues may be frustrated by the lack of information found on even the most advanced technology in the LMC.
Often the only sources on issues such as school board decisions, a proposal for a national sports arena in a nearby town, crimes committed in our city, or local politics may be the vertical files.
Limited financial resources. As costs continue to rise and local library funds decrease, every penny counts. Library media specialists must be more and more resourceful in spending money. Vertical files include clipped newspaper articles, brochures, pamphlets, and other free print materials, leaving library funds for other needed purchases.
Vertical file guidelines
- Keep the files current. Files should be weeded when they are no longer relevant. Outdated or wrong information is worse than none, as students will assume the material contained in the files is current and accurate. Maintaining obsolete files takes up needed space and valuable time. While files on the Exxon oil spill and the O. J. Simpson trial should be kept as historical resources, new files on Election 2000, the Y2K problem, and cloning should be added. In addition, articles within each file should be reviewed periodically. Is the list of animals in the “Endangered Species” file still current? Does the “AIDS” file reflect the latest research findings?
- Maintain a balance. Both sides of controversial issues should be represented. Strive to maintain balanced views on provocative issues such as gun control, the death penalty, and school prayer. Personal political, social, or religious views of the library staff should not be evident from the vertical files.
- Be selective. Topics easily found in other sources should not be included in the vertical files. Is there really a need for a voluminous file on the Clinton administration when so much information is readily available? On the other hand, don’t create a file if there isn’t enough justification for it. A list of hurricane names through the year 2002 (which I found) may be interesting, but I would not create a “Hurricane” file to accommodate it. Start a “Miscellaneous” file for odds and ends.
- Consolidate/divide space. Smaller, related topics can often be grouped in one file, saving space and providing easier access for students. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and dieting can all be combined in an “Eating Disorders” file. Conversely, if there is enough information on a subject to fill several files, subdivide them into smaller ones for a more narrowly defined search within a broader topic. For example, “Environment” can be divided into “Environmental Pollution,” “Environmental Organizations,” “Environmental Policy,” and “Environmental Activists.” In our library, the Chesapeake Bay is a popular and often researched topic, reflected in our rather extensive (13) subdivided files.
- Keep a current subject index. Frequently updated lists of all files should be kept within easy reach, allowing students to scan and locate subjects quickly. Topics are easily added or deleted if the print information is also saved to a disk. Vertical file topics can also be added to the automated catalog database, where they can be accessed by subject or keyword.
- Use “See” and “See also” references. Cross references are useful to students as they search the subject index and files. A student may be unaware that information on the death penalty is located in the “Capital Punishment” file, an article on smoking is under “Tobacco Industry,” and birth control facts are in “Family Planning”. Students may not ask for help, leaving the library without needed information if not for the “see” and “see also” clues to lead them to their topic. A student researching AIDS may be directed by a “see also” reference to the “Sexually Transmitted Disease” file, finding even more information for research.
- Rotate the responsibility for maintaining the files. The staff member responsible for maintaining the vertical files will usually be the most informed about them and therefore most able to help students find what they need. Rotating this job is a good idea, as each library media specialist will influence the size, scope, and content of the files, resulting in a more balanced and comprehensive collection.
- Create a uniform labeling system. Having the file name, source, date, and school name on each piece of information makes for easy checkout to students and easy refiling. Labeling each piece of material in red ink and purchasing a preprinted “Vertical files” stamp is useful. Don’t forget that student and adult library volunteers can be trained to label and stamp materials, keep the files in alphabetical order, and refile.
- Designate a collection location. Although collecting, organizing, labeling, weeding, and filing materials on a weekly basis is the ideal, it isn’t always possible. As you gather bits and pieces of information, keep a box or basket on your desk to store items for later processing. Then, when useful material is found by any staff member, it can be added to the growing pile.
- Always be on the lookout for information. From medical pamphlets donated by the public health department to reprints of journal articles to free governmental publications, collect material from a variety of sources. In addition to local and national newspapers, maps, posters, and newsletters, I regularly cull material from my home issues of Life, Readers’ Digest, and Southern Living. Solicit brochures from businesses and nonprofit organizations, gather pamphlets and handouts from conferences, and request free materials whenever possible.
Vertical files continue to serve a useful purpose in the modern LMC, addressing specific curriculum needs, supplementing existing reference sources, and further stretching limited library funds. With time-saving tips and organizational guidelines, maintaining files that are current, balanced, and easily accessible to students are well worth the effort.
By Pat McAbee.
Pat McAbee is a Library Media Specialist at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia.